Orange Order: Since 1800

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Orange Order: Since 1800

The Orange Order, an organization of loyalist Protestants, was founded in County Armagh during the political agitation that led to the 1798 rebellion. Although some individual Orange lodges opposed the Act of Union as undermining local and Protestant power, the Orange Order quickly moved to support the union. Orange parades on 12 July, the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, continued to be a prominent feature of the movement, which was to be found especially but not exclusively in Ulster. The government had initially welcomed Orange support for the state, but in the early decades of the nineteenth century the authorities sought to adopt a more neutral stance toward Orangeism because the parades often led to disturbances.

Between 1825 and 1828 the Order was suppressed under the Unlawful Societies Act. The Anti-Processions Act of 1832 curbed parades, and following a critical parliamentary report into the organization, the Orange Order was dissolved in 1835. Popular support for the movement survived, however, and when the Anti-Processions Act was lifted in 1845, the organization was re-formed and Twelfth of July processions resumed. Confrontations between Orangemen and Catholics still occurred, and after a large-scale fight at Dolly's Brae near Castlewellan, Co. Down, on 12 July 1849, which left a number of Catholics dead, the government introduced a new Party Processions Act forbidding public demonstrations.

Over the next two decades the authorities took firm action in support of this ban on parades, although some infringements did occur. In protest against the ban, William Johnston of Ballykilbeg, Co. Down, led an illegal Orange parade in 1867 from Newtownards to Bangor, Co. Down, which resulted in his imprisonment. He emerged from jail to become an Orange hero and was elected MP for Belfast in 1868. His protest led to the repeal of the act in 1872 and the resumption of legal Orange parades.

At this point the Orange Order's support was fairly limited, and it drew its membership mainly from small farmers and laborers in Ulster, most of whom belonged to the Church of Ireland. By the early 1880s, however, in response to the growing conflict between supporters of Home Rule and supporters of the union, the Order's membership increased and its social basis expanded to include large farmers and members of the middle and professional classes, many of them Presbyterians. The Order was seen by most unionists as a bulwark in support of the union that transcended social and denominational divisions. At the general elections of 1885 and 1886 the Order achieved an extra level of influence when local lodges secured representation on many of the new local unionist constituency associations. A majority of the Ulster Unionist MPs in 1886 were Orangemen.

Although Orange influence was strongest in Ulster, support for the movement was also found outside Ireland in other parts of the world such as Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand. Lodges were often started in these countries by emigrants from Ulster. The Order was especially prevalent in Canada. To link these different national Orange organizations, an Imperial Orange Council was established in 1867 to meet triennially.

At the 1892 Ulster Unionist Convention, delegates from the Orange Order assumed an important role. When the Ulster Unionist Council was formed in 1904, numerous places were allocated to nominees of the Orange Order. Early in the twentieth century, as a result of social and religious conflict, divisions arose in Orange ranks that led to the founding in 1903 of the Independent Orange Order by R. L. Crawford. This movement produced some radical political ideas, but in 1908, Crawford was expelled and the Independent Orange Order returned to a mainstream unionist stance, although it remained an autonomous body.

During the fierce Ulster resistance to Home Rule in 1912 to 1914, members of the Orange Order played a significant part. Orange demonstrations continued during most of the war years, although attendance was greatly reduced owing to the large number of Orangemen who had joined the armed forces. Because of the many casualties from Ulster at the Battle of the Somme, which commenced on 1 July 1916, Orange parades were cancelled on the Twelfth of July that year and church services were held instead. Following partition in 1920 and 1921, the headquarters of the Orange Order moved from Dublin to Belfast. The vast majority of Orangemen on the island were then to be found within the new Northern Ireland, although there was still a significant membership in the Ulster counties of Donegal, Monaghan, and Cavan that were part of the Irish Free State.

Membership in the Orange Order has generally been regarded as obligatory for unionist politicians since the founding of Northern Ireland in 1921. Especially since the outbreak of the "Troubles" in the late 1960s, the annual summer "marching season," of which the Twelfth of July is the climax, has been a continual source of tension and often violence. Catholics take offense at Orange parades as triumphalist rituals intended to humiliate them, while Orangemen regard the right to parade as a fundamental civil liberty. During the 1990s public attention came to focus on one particular parade—the annual march by a Portadown, Co. Armagh, lodge following their attendance at a special Sunday service at Drumcree parish church. The traditional route for this parade passes through a modern residential area occupied by Catholics. Intransigence on both sides has created a recurring confrontation and posed special dilemmas, especially for unionist elected representatives seeking to make the larger peace process successful.

SEE ALSO Ancient Order of Hibernians; Church of Ireland: Since 1690; Orange Order: Origins, 1784 to 1800; Sodalities and Confraternities


Bryan, Dominic. Orange Parades: The Politics of Ritual, Tradition, and Control. 2000.

Edwards, Ruth Dudley. The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions. 1999.

Brian Walker

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Orange Order: Since 1800

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